Wednesday, March 25, 2009

R23 (Los Angeles, CA)

923 E 2nd St, Los Angeles, CA 90012
Wed 03/25/2009, 07:00p-10:00p

For those unfamiliar with the site, is an online social networking site meant to facilitate offline group meetings. I'd been vaguely familiar with it for some time, but only became a member recently after a discussion with Sunshine Megatron (whom I dined with at Mélisse). As expected, I ended up joining a few of the foodie groups, including one called Pure Sushi. A relatively new group, it focuses, unsurprisingly, on sushi. The group name is somewhat of a misnomer however, as it's not sushi for purists, but rather, encompasses a wider swath, including, unfortunately, those ridiculous Philly-geisha-crouching tiger-hidden dragon-doggy style-samurai-happy ending-sudoku-Marilyn Monrolls (you get my point).

In any case, the group's first meeting location, R23, sounded promising. Opened in 1991, R23 has been somewhat of a fixture in the LA sushi scene, never being truly high-end, but consistently solid--I'd always been curious about the place. Joining me were Yelper Jane, group founder Patrick, and Ryan of Only Eat What Feeds Your Soul. One other Meetup member, Irina, cancelled at the last moment.

Perhaps the thing that R23's most known for is its "ghetto" location. The restaurant sits in the Arts (formerly Warehouse) District on the east side of Downtown Los Angeles (not far from Little Tokyo). Though commonly believe to stand for "Restaurant 23," R23's name actually originates from its position adjacent to railroad tracks (as can be seen in the photos), between 2nd and 3rd streets. While not a particularly dangerous neighborhood itself, it is less than a mile from the real "ghetto," a.k.a. Skid Row, home to one of the largest homeless populations in the country.

R23's isn't situated next to the street, so follow the tracks down this alley to the restaurant's front door. Note the graffiti (or is it art?) adorning the walls.

Decor is industrial-chic, replete with exposed brick, stark white walls, modern art (the handiwork of a former employee), and those oh-so-famous Frank Gehry-designed cardboard chairs. In addition, R23's newest owners (April 2007) purchased the adjacent space next door and converted it into a private dining room.

If you look toward the sushi bar, you'll see what appear to be black and white pieces of artwork on the wall. In fact, these are actually plates, used to carry large orders of sushi, as can be seen above. We also see our itamae, who hails from Himeji, a city in Hyogo Prefecture. He wasn't particularly engaging, but was nice enough.

R23 is arguably known more for its cooked food than its sushi, and though there were a number of enticing items on the menu, we decided to focus more on the sushi. The sushi menu lists all your typical cuts, as well as some more exotic varieties of fish (e.g. sayori, engawa); I was glad to see that they didn't have any of the crazy rolls I talked about earlier. Click for larger versions.

As far as the beverages go, I would've liked a more comprehensive sake selection. The white-focused wine list, meanwhile, is surprisingly large for a Japanese restaurant. Click for larger versions.

While we were waiting for Patrick to show up, we ordered some beers to whet our palates.
  • Jane ordered a Kirin Light [$4.50], which wasn't bad, but wasn't good either. Not dramatically different to me than regular Kirin, it was rather flavorless, and extraordinarily light, albeit crisp and refreshing.
  • The Asahi Select [$5.50] was Ryan's pick. We're used to seeing Asahi being offered, but this "Select" version was news to us. It was definitely darker in tone than Asahi Dry, as well as more flavorful and more complex. The maltiness was fairly apparent, giving the beer a pleasing sweetness, layered over some spiciness and some subtle hop bitterness. Pretty good.
  • I went for the Koshihikari Echigo [$8.50], which I hadn't tried before. Located in Niigata, Echigo is considered somewhat of a "microbrew" and was a nice change from the "big 3" Japanese beers. Koshihikari is a popular variety of Japanese rice, and this rice lager had a prominent ricey aroma to it. This continued onto the palate, where it was joined by citrus, spice, and floral notes. My favorite of the trio.

Spicy Tuna Roll [$6.00]
Jane was getting hungry at this point, so she ended up ordering a simple spicy tuna roll to quell her grumbling stomach. Jane was not a fan, nor was I. The tuna itself was good enough, but nori and rice got in its way. Overall, quite blunt and unrefined.

Once we dispensed with the beers, we ordered up a large Harushika ("spring deer") Junmai sake [$35]. It actually turned out better than I expected, with pleasing dry citrus, spice, and grass flavors along with just a bit of heat. Clean, crisp, smooth, and easy-drinking.

Maguro / Bigeye Tuna [$6.00]
The ruby red color of the tuna was rather beautiful; the taste, though, wasn't quite as vibrant. It certainly wasn't bad however--a clean, mild flavor backed up by a nice wasabi kick. The texture of the tuna was more interesting, with a a thick, dry, mouth-filling, almost chewy consistency.

Hirame / Halibut [$6.00]
Halibut is usually a pretty simple, straightforward fish, so the use of ponzu sauce did spice things up a bit, as did the tangy scallion. Pretty good.

Sake / Salmon [$6.00]
Salmon is typically fairly ho-hum, but this was actually one of the surprises of the night. The fish was uncharacteristically meaty and chewy, requiring quite a bit of mastication. The flavor, meanwhile, was far stronger that I expected, with a distinct oiliness not usually found in salmon.

Tai / Red Snapper [$8.00]
We were instructed to eat this one with no soy (Sushi Zo style), as the fish had already been doused with yuzu and sea salt. The pairings worked, with the yuzu providing a great sourness that really brought out the flavor of the fish, while the salt gave the sushi a long, lingering finish. Great snappy texture on this one too.

Aji / Spanish Mackerel [$8.00]
The ginger and scallion provided a tart flavor component that really balanced out the natural intensity of the mackerel; actually they may have been too effective, as I would've preferred more fishiness. The texture of the aji was also quite nice--oily, creamy, buttery.

Mirugai / Jumbo Clam [$10.00]
Geoduck often has a consistency that's too hard, too crunchy, but the example here was actually quite nice in that regard--meaty and snappy, yet yielding. Flavor-wise, I noted a mild brininess that was deftly set off by the nori, leading to a pleasant wasabi-tinged finish.

Sayori / Needlefish [$8.00]
Now needlefish is a fairly uncommon sushi ingredient here in the States; I've had it only at Go's Mart, Sushi Zo, and Urasawa. This wasn't a particularly distinctive version, though I did like contrast provided by the ginger--nicely balanced. I appreciated the attempt at artistry, the twisting of the fish into a particular shape, though it didn't match the beauty of the sayori on my first Urasawa trip.

Hotate / Scallop [$4.00]
The scallops were served far too cold here. This coldness jarred my taste buds, and really eliminated whatever little flavor the scallops had; instead, the nori wrapper really came to the foreground taste-wise. Perhaps we should've sprung for the pricier "whole scallop," at double the price.

We thought about getting another serving of sake, but decided on some wine instead. The wine we chose was the 2007 (the menu mistakenly lists it as the 2006) Leth Steinagrund Grüner Veltliner from Austria [$38]; this was my first time pairing a Grüner with sushi, but it turned out surprisingly well. The wine really demonstrated what's great about the varietal, with a medium weight, crisp body, and tasty notes of apple and stone fruit, laced over a backdrop of mineral and spice. I could easily drink and enjoy this by itself, but it's an easy complement to food.

Ikura / Salmon Egg [$8.00]
Really good ikura has a certain distinctive "pop" to it, a sharp burst of brininess that explodes in the mouth; this did not. Jane noted that the roe came out of a not-too-fresh looking plastic canister, while Ryan complained that it wasn't salty enough.

Uni / Sea Urchin [$10.00]
The uni here had a nice looking "cat's tongue" texture--usually a good sign. The flavor confirmed this, with the roe having a creamy body, along with a mild sweet-briny interplay, all balanced by the smokiness of its nori wrapper. Surprisingly good.

Fresh Kumamoto Oysters [$12.00]
One of the things I love about Kumamotos is their bold crispness, but that was sorely lacking here. Rather, the oysters were somewhat milky, heavy, and creamy, and quite small to boot. The cocktail sauce and lemon didn't do much to help. A disappointment.

Ankimo [$10.50]
Steamed Monk Fish Liver with Spicy Ponzu Sauce. The ankimo had a pleasing, firm texture to it and a mild, subtle flavor. This flavor was expertly contrasted by the spicy finish of the momiji oroshi (grated daikon with chili), the tang of the scallion, and the sweetness of the ponzu. It reminded me of the ankimo at Shibucho. Quite good, though Ryan thought that the liver was too lean.

Unagi / Fresh Water Eel [$6.00]
It seems like I've been moving away from unagi to anago as of late. This made me remember why I liked unagi in the first place--its fatty, oily, luxurious texture necessitated the use of a sweet, syrupy sauce for balance. It was actually reminiscent of the unagi at my first sushi haunt: Sushi Wave.

Beef Sashimi [$15.00]
Though advertised as "sashimi," this was definitely more like a tataki, or even a sliced steak. Although Jane loathed this dish, I thought that it was at least passable. There was certainly nothing offensive (the beef was pretty flavorless), though I do think that it would've been better had it been cooked rarer and seasoned more strongly. For a true beef sashimi, take a gander at the beautiful beef throat at Totoraku.

Japanese-Style Ceviche [$14.00]
This was basically a mishmash of various cuts of fish, dressed up with a tart, acidic citrus sauce. The end result was actually quite delicious (can't go wrong with cilantro), albeit lacking a bit in finesse. The ceviche was served in a shrimp rice paper wrapper (as found in Chinese cuisine), which I likened to the tortilla bowl used in Taco Bell's Taco Salad!

Tamago / Egg Cake [$4.00]
Patrick always likes to order tamago, so we decided to end the meal with it. Unfortunately, I suspect that the example here was purchased, and not made in-house. It had a very "generic" taste to it--too sweet, and not eggy enough.

The bill comes in a nice wooden presentation case. At $55.50 per person, the food cost actually turned out less than I expected--I was bracing for much worse.

Overall, R23 served up solid, though not outstanding fare. Clearly, it's not at the level of the top sushi players such as Sushi Zo or Mori Sushi, not to mention Urasawa. I'd place it below the level of an Echigo or Sushi Sasabune as well. You can do better, but this isn't a bad place. I mean, it's been around for nearly 20 years, so they must be doing something right, right?


Blogger Kung Food Panda said...

R23 was one of the first sushi restaurant I had here in Los Angeles, and overall I thought it was hit and miss experience. I went when they were under the former ownership so I don't know what has changed since then, but the star of my dinner was that crab salad. The nigiri sushi was so-so, and you're right, R23 is a step below to even the 2nd tier sushi restaurants (ie: Echigo) in LA.

Thursday, April 02, 2009 3:47:00 AM  
Blogger Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kevin,

Great review. Thanks for the info on this place. Like you, I've been curious about it for a while but never got a chance to go yet (hearing mixed things here and there over the years). Looks like you've saved me some money. :) Thanks.

Thursday, April 02, 2009 9:34:00 AM  
Blogger mia said...

Thanks for the review! I haven't seen too many posts on this place. I went a year ago and was not impressed. The best thing I had was the crab salad!

Have you been to echigo lately? It was totally empty and the fish was not good :(

Thursday, April 02, 2009 11:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Iwashee said...

agree with you on R23. i haven't gone back after my first experience at the bar. you should give sushi sushi in beverly hills a shot - i think it's pretty underrated and stacks up quite well with the more traditional sushi bars in LA. i'm curious to get your thoughts.

Thursday, April 02, 2009 2:25:00 PM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Danny: I've heard a lot of good things about that crab salad; I wish I would've ordered it to see what all the fuss is about!

Exile: Like Danny said, it can be hit-or-miss; however, it still might be worth checking out. It'd be interesting to hear your take on the place.

mia: Again with the crab salad! The last time I went to Echigo was late last year. I thought it was pretty solid, but it's unfortunate if the place has gone downhill recently.

Iwashee: Sushi Sushi is an interesting proposition. The place has a stupid name frankly, yet it's highly rated and appears to serve authentic, traditional fare. It's on my list.

Thursday, April 02, 2009 2:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this place is actually great at lunch. prices werent nearly as steep as I thought they'd be and the presentation/everything was gorgeous and delicious (esp the chirashi)

Friday, April 03, 2009 1:35:00 PM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

I could actually see it being a good lunch spot, with the chirashi especially. Do you work in the area?

Friday, April 03, 2009 4:29:00 PM  
Blogger Right Way to Eat said...

Where is Jane? Did you know she texted me after she wrote the review for this place? hahaha. Funny girl. Love her!

I'm glad you had a "solid" experience. I don't think it was in the upper echelon in the sushi joint. heck, I would prefer Hama Sushi over this place. It's been a while since I had been here and back then it was a hip and trendy place to go for sushi.

Did you guys hit up Wurstküche for beer and sausage afterward? I know Tangbro1 wanted to go there. It's only about a block and half away from here.

Saturday, April 04, 2009 12:16:00 AM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

I didn't know that she texted you, but it wouldn't surprise me!

We obviously weren't full after the meal. We originally wanted to go to Daikokuya for ramen, but decided against it after seeing the line out the door. We ended up going to In-n-Out, where I ate a 4x4. Jane had a double-double with a vanilla shake.

Both Ryan and I want to try Wurstküche, but we didn't think of it at the time. It would've been closed anyway though (we got out of R23 at 10:00).

Saturday, April 04, 2009 3:27:00 AM  
Blogger me said...

GREAT review, Kevin! lol...and btw, i ate a single cheeseburger (not a double double) was a blast hanging with you and ryan. reading your review really put into light how different individual sushi experiences can be (e.g., my vs. ryan's take on the roe and ankimo). good times - let's hit up komasa soon.

Sunday, April 05, 2009 12:15:00 PM  
Blogger me said...

btw, doggy-style marilyn monrolls????? LOL - hilarious!

Sunday, April 05, 2009 12:20:00 PM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Thanks Jane! Good times indeed. I'll let you know about Komasa. BTW, I think you could've handled a double-double in any case. ;)

Sunday, April 05, 2009 5:22:00 PM  
Blogger Pepsi Monster said...

Hey Kevin,

The sausage house opens until 11am on weekdays and midnight on Friday and Saturday. Too bad about the miss because it was only a block and a half away from R23.

The owners might extend the hours to 2am in the near future. Ryan has mentioned he might make a visit. I might hit it up if Ryan decides to order everything for a taste sampler on all the sausages.

Won't join on the beer tasting though. LOL

Tuesday, April 07, 2009 11:59:00 PM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

The website says 11am-10pm Monday-Wednesday. Is that not correct?

Ryan and I talked about trying all 24 sausages some time.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009 1:37:00 AM  
Blogger Epicuryan said...

For the record Kevin, I said the Ikura was too salty and a bit viscous...

Thursday, April 09, 2009 2:31:00 AM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

So did I switch you and Jane? She didn't think it was salty enough then?

Thursday, April 09, 2009 2:32:00 AM  

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